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Concern grows in Legislature over killers who were wrongly freed

Concern is mounting in the Legislature over news that the Florida Department of Corrections let two convicted murderers go free based on what the agency says were fraudulent documents that passed through the county clerk's office in Orlando to prison officials.

Inmates Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins, serving lengthy sentences for separate murders in Orlando more than a decade ago, were recently released from Franklin C.I. in Carrabelle based on documents that reportedly forged the signature of a prominent Orlando-area judge, Belvin Perry. Both men, age 34, are still at large and considered dangerous by Orange County law enforcement officials.

Gov. Rick Scott has not made a public statement about the case. Scott, who is up for re-election in 2014, frequently points with pride to the decline in Florida's crime rate.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chairman of the Senate budget committee overseeing prisons, said he would demand that the Senate receive a "full understanding of how something like this could happen." But he said that must wait until after the two inmates are captured. "Now is not the time for that," Bradley said.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was not quite as reticent and issued a statement that called for the House to hold hearings on the incident in the coming weeks.

"This is unconscionable, almost unthinkable ," Rouson said. "People have faith in government that it will keep the peace and justice. If these two convicted murderers were let go by the Florida Department of Corrections, something must change." Rouson is the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations panel that controls the prison system's budget.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews issued a statement Thursday saying that his agency followed its policies properly, but that the documents had been falsified. The department also released an explanation of how it handles prisoner releases, including "accessing the court order on the clerk's public web site and/or contacting the clerk's office directly and having them send a copy of the order. Once the Department receives the Court Order, a check is done in a nationwide database to see if there are any holds or warrants in other states/counties. If no active holds or warrants are found, the Department moves forward with the release."

If the inmates aren't captured quickly, Crews will have a lot of explaining to do in the Capitol. He enjoys cordial relations with lawmakers and makes himself accessible to them (Bradley said Crews telephoned him Thursday to explain the circumstances of the releases). The prisons chief has been grappling with a persistent budget deficit in his agency and lawmakers are increasingly impatient that the agency has not yet switched to a more modern electronic time and attendance system for its 20,000-or-so employees.